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The 5 stages of a surprise contender

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The Brewers, Twins, and Rockies are all in first place. Here’s how things will progress from here.

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It’s almost June. The Brewers and Cubs are playing a series that people care about. It’s almost June. The Brewers and Cubs are playing a series that people care about. It’s almost ...

Sorry. Got stuck. As one does when the topic of a high-octane Brewers offense is brought up. But it’s OK to be a little discombooberated when thinking about the surprise contenders around baseball. The Twins are in first. The Rockies are already 10 games over .500. And the Brewers are going into Wrigley Field, trying to stay atop the division. It’s almost June, in case you haven’t noticed.

This series is an important one for the Brewers, not just for the obvious reasons, but because it could mark the metamorphosis of their status as a surprise contender. The journey from surprise contender to completely normal postseason team is a long one, and it’s fraught with danger. It’s still early for the Brewers, Twins, and Rockies, and you can tell because people are incapable of writing about them without including the words “it’s still early.” That can change soon. That should change soon if they’re for real.

Here, then, are the five stages of a surprise contender:

1. Spring optimism

This is a gentle stage that everyone can enjoy. Do you remember the desert zephyrs blowing through your hair, whispering things like, “Ryan Schimpf is going to hit 40 homers?” No. No, you don’t. But it happened to Padres fans. The period was brief, but the spell was real. Everyone gets to daydream about being a surprise contender, except for the people following expected contenders, who get to dream about that.

When it comes to the Brewers, I’ll confess to getting their hopes up in February.

Of all the lineups in baseball, this is the one that seems like it would be the easiest to justify retroactively in August if the Brewers are doing better than expected. Of course they’re a strong lineup, we’ll think. It was so obvious the whole time.

It’s hard to believe that’s the only prediction or prognostication that I’ve made all year — don’t bother looking for any others, but sometimes you get lucky. And the Brewers can hit. We’re all pretty comfortable with this idea. Just wait until Jonathan Villar or Orlando Arcia starts hitting, too.

Last year the Rockies’ ability to find a mostly homegrown rotation was one of the better overlooked stories of the season. What if they were effective in 2017 with the lineup staying just as potent? Well, buddy, take a few moments in March to think about it.

It all made so much sense in the spring.

2. “It’s still early”

On the one hand, this is the correct position. Let’s check in with a headline from a year ago:

Dreaming of a Cubs-White Sox World Series? You should be

This might be the perfect headline for the it’s-still-early faction. Last year at this time, people cared about the White Sox. The team sure fixed that for them.

On the other hand, do you know what it would look like if the team in question was really better than expected? Kind of like the Brewers right now. Lots of wins. Surprising improvements. Picking which surprise contenders are real reminds me of picking out which hitters are legitimately better in clutch situations: They exist, but you can’t tell with the naked eye and anecdotal evidence.

The worst part is that while you’re bleating about sample sizes, you’re also waiting for evidence that everything is a mirage. A five-game losing streak is more than enough evidence, even if a five-game stretch is ... a small sample. Doesn’t matter. The first time the team suffers through a losing jag, it’ll be because it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was still early, after all.

Except some teams never have that losing jag. They just keep winning and move on to the next stage.

3. The deadline deal

The Brewers are rolling now, sure, but can you name two of their starters? If you can, there’s a chance that some of them are the bad starters. And pay special attention to their bullpen, which has seven relievers with a BB/9 over four. They’re just as likely to walk the bases loaded as strike out the side, and that doesn’t seem like something that’s sustainable on a contending team.

If the Brewers make it through this gauntlet, though, they’ll have the opportunity to speed up their rebuilding timetable and exchange young players or prospects for starting pitchers and relievers. Would Johnny Cueto look good and irritate the rest of the NL Central? Oh, and how. What about Jose Quintana? What about both, with Joakim Soria and Alex Colome mixed in somewhere? They could burn through all of it, or they could add R.A. Dickey and cross their fingers.

Either way, there’s a chance that the surprise contender will be a deeper, stronger team in a couple of months, even if the trade that helped it get there was short-sighted and ill-advised.

You’re reading this because of the 1997 Giants, which featured Barry Bonds and 24 other guys who were supposed to finish in last place. A little luck and unexpected success later, and they were willing to trade some of their best prospects in a monster deadline deal. Suddenly, they weren’t the same team that was supposed to win 70 games. They were that team plus an improved Jeff Kent plus an improved leadoff situation plus a frontline starter plus a reliever who threw 100 mph back when that was a rarity. They were a better team than the surprise contender because you got to take the new data (Jeff Kent is good?) and slap them together with the new players to form new expectations.

4. The surge or fade

Baseball is a long season, everyone. And of the Brewers, Twins, or Rockies, at least one of them will tumble down the same hill as the White Sox. Maybe two of them. Maybe all three. Unless they all start winning. Oh, the permutations!

Note that we’re talking about a post-deadline surge or fade. Anything before then would fall under the “it’s-still-early” category.

The fading will make young children feel sad. I hope you’re happy.

5. Everything is normal; nothing to see here

When I started writing about baseball nationally in 2011, the Orioles, Royals, and Pirates had combined to finish over .500 twice since the millennium started. That was 30 combined seasons, with just two of them winning more games than they lost (and never making the postseason, of course).

Then the Orioles were good. Surprise! And the Royals. Surprise! Then they were suddenly playing in the ALCS against each other, and it was completely normal. The Pirates are perhaps the saddest team in baseball (for multiple reasons), but not because of their inherent Piratesitude, but because expectations were so high in the first place. Everyone just expects these teams to contend, to the point where if they struggle, that’s the bigger news.

For the extreme example, check out the Astros, a team that had one of the worst stretches in baseball history. People freaked out when they saw this Sports Illustrated cover:

To the point where it seemed like it was something a contrarian writer had to justify. Now we’re pretty danged used to the idea of the Astros contending. They might win 100 games. It’s completely normal, and it’s weird that people back in 2014 thought it was weird that the 2017 Astros might contend. It’s a real weird-off.

The stage the Brewers, Twins, and Rockies are in right now? It’s still early, of course. They have several road trips, several series against tough teams between them and the next stage. There are cautionary tales everywhere you look; there are examples of sustained success, too. Occasionally, though, the surprise contenders become the contenders, and everyone will stop qualifying their descriptions. They’ll be accepted as one of the normal teams.

All you want in baseball is to be one of the normal teams. These three might be on their way.